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Grüner Veltliner – Dive Into Austria’s Flagship Wine

Austrian wine may not be as established a wine nation as its European neighbours. However, it is growing in popularity, with 2020 marking an all-time high for Austrian wine exports. Undoubtedly, the principal export among them was Grüner Veltliner.

Grüner Veltliner is almost ubiquitous across Austria. An ever-present feature of their wine regions. It has also had success in countries such as Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Then, to a lesser extent some new world nations. This includes the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Regardless, Austria is no doubt its home.

While very much the grape of Austria, the history and name of the grape allude to an Italian past. Like so many of the old world wines, Grüner Veltliner can be traced back to Ancient Rome. The name actually means the ‘Green Wine of Veltlin’. Veltlin being an area in the alps which is now part of Valtellina, in Italy.

Valtellina - Grüner Veltliner's Namesake
Valtellina – Grüner Veltliner’s Namesake

We can now dig into the roots of this historic grape and give you an idea of what you can expect to taste and smell when you open your first, (or next), bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

The History of Austrian Wine

Despite Austrian wine and Grüner Veltliner having a long history, it does not have the same global status as other nations. Although, Austria was the third largest wine producing nation, in the 1920’s. Yet, popularity dwindled due to a scandal within the world of Austrian wine.

The 1980’s climate in Austria was tumultuous for grape-growers. Grapes weren’t ripening and the end product was a thin and sour wine. This caused a lot of the producers to panic. A substantial amount of their export wine market at the time were to their German neighbours. The desire for Austrian wine in Germany, was generally for sweeter wine. This made a few producers take drastic action.

They began adding sweeteners to the wine, to try and mask the taste of what was a bad product. However, believe it or not, Italy had tried the same thing with Germany a few years previously. This meant the Germans had fairly sophisticated quality screening processes and what they found caused a scandal.

The special ingredient Austrian farmers used in an attempt to add body and sweetness was ‘Diethylene Glycol’. This liquid has many applications, some of which include brake fluid and antifreeze. So, for context 14 grams per liter of this is fatal and one bottle of Austrian wine from Burgenland had 48 grams per liter. No doubt this would cause quite the hangover!

NY Times on the Austrian Scandal
NY Times on the Austrian Scandal

Yet, a few isolated incidents from misguided vintners does not represent Austrian wine as a whole. Many dedicated professionals have put in a lot of work to shed the shadow of this scandal and it is plain to see Austrian wine is having a resurgence. Now, we can review its shining star in more detail – the Grüner Veltliner.

Grüner Veltliner

The Grüner Veltliner, as we have said, can be found across Austria. In fact, it is likely indigenous to Austria. In spite of the name’s etymology suggesting something Italian. The Grüner Veltliner grape genealogy likely stems from two ancestors. The first being ‘Gewürztraminer’ and the other is muchly debated, but many attest that it is likely a little-known centuries old variety from Burgenland in Austria.

Some of the best offerings of Grüner Veltliner are found along the banks of the Danube River. Regions such as Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal are all wine regions of note in Austria. Not only does the Danube make these regions aesthetically beautiful, it has a clear impact on taste. The rich minerality of the soil adds a real depth to the flavour.

Vineyards on the banks of the Danube River
Vineyards on the banks of the Danube River

In terms of flavour, there are essentially two broad styles to the Grüner Veltliner. Although, both will likely possess a dryness, with good structural acidity which combine well with citrus and orchard fruit flavours. Think of yellow apples and pears. Gruner is also associated with white pepper and a sense of vegetative notes like asparagus.

One style is the lighter and fruitier kind. This is generally the style of Grüner Veltliner you’re more likely to come across. They are younger, paler wines. They will possess high levels of acidity and should be enjoyed chilled. This camp also includes ‘Grüner Veltliner Sekt‘. Sekt being the term used in German to delineate a sparkling wine.

The other style of Grüner Veltliner is perhaps more refined. This will be the ‘Reserve’. Unquestionably these wines are still acidic. However, the acidity won’t be quite as lip-puckering as its younger relative. To balance out this acidity, you can expect peppery undertones, with a rich and nutty sweetness and great minerality. Aged Grüner is more golden than green.

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Grüner Veltliner Food Pairings

Grüner Veltliner’s crispness and high acidity make it an amazingly refreshing white wine. There are two main routes to go down here. One is richness and one is spice. Grüner Veltliner is the perfect companion to either of these dishes as it is able to cut through the richness and spiciness in a delicious fashion.

It seems only fitting to suggest a classic Austrian dish, the ‘Wiener Schnitzel‘. This translates to ‘Viennese Cutlet’. It is a thin and breaded veal cutlet which is then deep-fried in lard or butter. This can then be served with a few different options. Rich and creamy mash, a potato salad, fries or even a thick pasta noodle such as pappardelle. You can also substitute veal for other meats such as pork, chicken or turkey and cook using the same method.

Anything that is deep-fried in butter is going to be rich and decadent. That’s why the Grüner Veltliner is the perfect accompaniment. Wiener Schnitzel and Grüner Veltliner – it doesn’t get more Austrian than that.

Wiener Schnitzel - perfect with a light Grüner Veltliner
Wiener Schnitzel – perfect with a light Grüner Veltliner

Another fantastic pairing for Grüner Veltliner is sushi. The subtle spiciness and minerality of this wine make it perfect to match with the heat of wasabi and the minerality of fish. In terms of a specific dish to make, I really think it’s hard to go wrong. Most Nigiri, Sashimi, Uramaki or Temaki Hand Rolls will likely be a good pairing.

If I had to suggest one, it would be a Spicy Tuna Hosomaki. These also have the benefit of being potentially the easiest sushi to recreate at home. Get a bottle of Grüner Veltliner and enjoy some Spicy Tuna Hosomaki, that will no doubt become gradually messier as the night goes on!

Spicy Tuna Hosomaki
Spicy Tuna Hosomaki – serve with a peppery Grüner Veltliner

Similar Wines to Grüner Veltliner

Grüner Veltliner is delicious, but not always easy to come by. Let’s take a brief look at some alternatives to satiate any cravings while you hunt for the real thing.

Chardonnay would be a great example of something which could aim to fill Grüner Veltliner’s shoes. In the warmest climates Chardonnay can lose its acidity. However, a number of central European or English varieties tend to retain their acidity very well. This acidity, combined with fresh citrus notes, really does put one in mind of the Grüner Veltliner.

Another alternative to Grüner Veltliner can be one of the parent grape varietals – Gewürztraminer. While this doesn’t possess the acidity that a Grüner does, there are many characteristics which can make it comparable to the richer and spicier variety. The delicate perfume of it, with notes of lychee, grapefruit and even ginger give you a taste of the Grüner Veltliner without the intense acidity. Gewürztraminer pairs really well with spicy dishes and Thai is our recommended pairing.

With previous scandals long forgotten and exports rising every year, Austrian wine is making a comeback. This comeback is being spearheaded by the Grüner Veltliner. It is the perfect wine for Summer. Crisp and refreshing. Certainly, not one to be missed!


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By Harry Lambourne

31st July 2021

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